Geoengineering: Is this the only way to save the world?

With the world slowly but steadily descending into living hell (no, I’m not exaggerating), scientists in the field of environmental science are hard pressed for solutions. There have been many that have been proposed and implemented. Some of which, I have mentioned in my blogs as well: restoration ecology, wildlife conservation, genetic modification and manipulation, management practices, modification of policies, to name a few. Others like waste management, renewable sources of energy, disaster management also exist.

But how effective have they really been?

A reality check

All of the methods mentioned above are certainly effective in principle. We can create a great change in the world by altering our management practices of natural resources, give high importance to wildlife conservation and certainly revive many of our wastelands through restoration principles. However, these have some significant roadblocks-

  • The processes are slow to take effect. In a world that worships speed and fast results, more than anything else, it is the slow results that put off policy makers. Many projects can be shut down or ignored because it takes time for the scientists to find the information they require. A case in point is the disaster management research after the Kedarnath disaster in India in 2013. This cloud burst shook the entire country, and a lot of impetus was put into finding out how this happened and how to mitigate future disasters of this kind. This impetus was strong in the first few months……but soon, the funds and the support waned. The scientists high in the Himalayas suggesting mitigation measures were left pretty much stranded.In similar vein, restoration of lands after degradation take decades to be completed. What would the world do while that happens?

 

  • Often, the measures do not yield high profits. This has been the reason for the mediocre popularity of organic foods and adoption of safe agricultural practices. The demand and the associated prices are so high that these farmers really need the technological and chemical inputs to meet ends meet.

 

  • Agreeing on policies that cross national boundaries is a Herculean task in today’s world. Each country has its own economic goals and is unwilling to compromise it for the sake of the environment, if it feels that other countries are being allowed to continue their economic growth without much alteration.

 

  • In the larger scheme of things, these measures seem to make little effect. No matter how much we conserve forests, no matter how much we protect wildlife or alter management practices, it seems like there is nothing we can do to impede the rate of climate change today. It definitely breeds a sense of hopelessness.

So, while our current measures to fight the environmental crisis are certainly strong, and can be quite effective when put together, it doesn’t seem like it is making much of a difference! It feels like trying to stop an overflowing pipe with a tissue paper.

Is there something that can be done to more effectively stem this overflow? A metaphorical spanner?

Geoengineering: A controversial solution

Geoengineering has been doing the rounds in the scientific community for some time now. It is also called climate engineering. Essentially, it is the modification of climate processes to reduce the effects of climate change and reverse the damage that has been caused by human intervention. Reverse, not mitigate. That is an important distinction, in the light of things.

Geoengineering is the human intervention in nature to reverse past human interventions.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Image results for geoengineering

Why is this controversial?

This technique for reversing climate change is unlike other techniques of mitigation because it focuses on the large scale. By using geoengineering, scientists are attempting to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and controlling the solar radiation that Earth receives. These are going to affect natural systems that are much bigger than a single forest or an agricultural land. This is the entire world, we are talking about.

We are still trying to understand much of the ecosystem mechanisms on a landscape level. Climate, is a whole different ball game. Is it advisable for us to tinker with such large systems? Many don’t think so.

The biggest critics of geoengineering argue that the consequences of such interventions are unpredictable. For all we know, we could end up causing further damage to the climate and landscape processes!

There is another issue of ethics. We have already recklessly wrecked the ecosystems of the world. What gives us the audacity to think that we can fix that by tinkering with much larger systems?

Other scientists and policy makers believe that geoengineering may not be as effective as the mitigation measures already under implementation. When we know that these measures are working (slowly, but nevertheless, working), why interfere further? What gives us the misplaced assurance that our intervention is going to make any effect on a natural process that is underway? Climate change has been happening over the course of Earth’s geological history after all. There is nothing “wrong” about it.

Some rebuttals…

To those who think that this solution is “not elegant” and “misplaced” because our intervention will not solve this crisis, here is something to think about.

The Earth, and all its systems, big and small, have already been engineered.

We have affected the large systems unknowingly already. Those produced negative results. What if knowingly affecting them could negate those results? We would be foolish not to try.

Geoengineering provides us with a way to quickly reverse some of the major effects of climate change so that our mitigation measures can get more time to bring better results. It isn’t meant to be a permanent solution. Neither is it justification for what we have already done to the world; desperate times call for desperate measures.

Image results for geoengineering
Some of the suggestions for increasing solar reflectance.

Geoengineering solutions are simple. They make sense because most of these solutions mimic existing natural processes. Take for example, the sulphur dioxide emission into the stratosphere that I talked about in a previous blog. We are simply doing what a volcano does!

More than anything else, we are left with little options. Yes, our mitigation measures are effective. But have they been implemented fast enough to be of any significance? Maybe. Maybe not. I, for one, don’t want to wait and find out.


Honestly, I was really against geoengineering. More than anything else, I was against it because it felt wrong. We have no right to interfere with something so big and beyond us. What converted me? The fact that we have already interfered with everything we plan to interfere with, in our quest to geoengineer the world. Our climate is changing largely because of our push. Our animals and birds are dying because of our greed. In light of this, maybe it is the right thing to do to try and rectify our mistakes.

I agree that the consequences of such intervention are unpredictable. Which is why so much study is going to into these techniques and the environment of implementation before actually putting it into action. Extreme caution is the way forward. I support this technique (a bit reluctantly) and I believe this is a major way in which we can prevent huge disasters in the future. The key words?: Tread very, very carefully. 


Further reading-

  1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/geoengineering-and-climate-change/
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